Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

The Sound Inside
Marin Theatre Company
Review by Patrick Thomas

Tyler Miclean and Denmo Ibrahim
Photo by Kevin Berne
I've long been a fan of the productions of Word for Word, a theatre company that operates out of Z Space in San Francisco. Word for Word is known for their stagings of short stories in which every single word of a story is spoken/performed on stage, and they came to mind as I sat enraptured by Marin Theatre Company's production of Adam Rapp's The Sound Inside. It's not simply because the action happening on stage is sometimes voiced by the character–though that does happen here. I liken it to Word for Word because the whole piece is so wonderfully, hauntingly, beautifully ... literate. It's filled with delightfully original descriptions: "She is the equivalent of a collectible plate mounted to a wall," or, "The serpentine wickedness hiding in a lost scarf." And it's about writing–at least on a surface level, as the two characters are a middle-aged (her description) professor of Creative Writing at Yale and one of her freshman students who is writing a novel.

But most of all, unlike far too many plays it seems, this one has an actual story. Beginning, middle, end ... remember those? It was a story that kept me–and I imagine many of my fellow theatregoers–enraptured for 90 intermission-less minutes.

Bella Blair is a seemingly happy, well-adjusted tenured professor, never married–and used to being mistaken for a lesbian. Or a witch. Or a woman who collects cat calendars. She is none of these things. Instead, she enjoys the energy of her students, a glass of red wine on occasion, and, once or twice a month, a six-ounce filet at Jack's Bar and Steakhouse. Her life–despite the poor sales of her novel–seems to be going according to plan. That is, until two forces enter her life: Christopher Dunn, a gangly youth who presents with a rather emo aura and old-fashioned ways (he doesn't do email and writes on a manual typewriter); and cancer. Stomach cancer, which is exactly what killed her mother, at almost the same age. How the two forces affect Bella entwine her and Christopher in an intricate web that somehow also ensnares we mere viewers.

When Christopher intrudes on Bella's office hours (she usually insists on students making appointments) his oddness and angsty rage are compelling to Bella, and the two develop something like a friendship, something like a mentor-mentee relationship, but something that is far deeper than both.

Bella is the most honest and reliable of narrators; we never sense anything that is less than true or forthcoming about her. Bella is played by Denmo Ibrahim, who, in this role, cements her position as one of my favorite Bay Area actors. She is so natural in the role and so powerful (in surprisingly subtle ways), that you never sense she is practicing the craft of acting, but instead merely exists as the character she plays. Adam Rapp may have created Bella Blair, but Denmo Ibrahim somehow becomes Bella Blair.

Christopher Dunn, Bella's student, is far more mysterious than he is honest, which gives Tyler Miclean the opportunity to flex his youthful thespian skill set to reveal the nature of Christopher, while always holding back a little something–because that's what his character would do. Christopher doesn't trust the world: despite the privilege of an Ivy League education, the world hasn't always treated him well. His father is a complete mystery to him, and he hasn't seen him since he was five. His mother, is a different sort of mystery–in fact, an oft-published mystery novelist who may or may not have agoraphobia, since she never leaves the house. Miclean does the hard work of being angsty without being aggressive, moody without being withdrawn, and tender while maintaining a stony carapace that you just know hides a wounded, gentle soul.

Director Jasson Minadakis keeps things refreshingly simple, allowing the text–and his two skilled actors–to do the heavy lifting. His blocking is always motivated by action–nothing ever seems superfluous or mannered. The set, by Edward E. Haynes, Jr. is likewise simple: a desk and office chair; a table with two chairs for scenes in a restaurant; and an arrangement of pillows that somehow easily functions as Bella's home. There is also a screen upstage that displays abstract images that reinforce the claustrophobic, caught-in-a-web state that mirrors the cancer Bella faces and the oddly creepy plot of Christopher's novel-in-progress. Occasionally, phrases from the text of the play are projected on the back scrim, though there seems to be no reason why each was selected.

When The Sound Inside reaches its denouement, you may be shocked at the twists it took to get there, but when you look back on all that playwright Rapp laid out for you, you will see the clues were there all along, hidden in plain sight.

The Sound Inside runs through June 18, 2022, at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley CA. Performances are Tuesdays-Sundays at 7:30 p.m., with matinees Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets range from $25-$60. For tickets and information, please visit or call 415-388-5208.